The Times West Virginian

Opinion

May 30, 2014

Maya Angelou’s words are sure to inspire for many generations to come

“I’m a woman

Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,

That’s me.”

Originally printed in 1978, Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” celebrates the softness and femininity of a woman while proudly displaying and not apologizing for her strength and power.

While most of her pieces are classified as “autobiographical fiction,” as she drew from her experiences as a black woman when neither distinction would allow her to advance much further than what glass ceilings and Jim Crow would allow, how could anyone read that poem and not see Angelou in every verse and every line?

Phenomenal woman.

She wasn’t just a poet, just as she wasn’t just the fry cook, prostitute and nightclub dancer she was in a previous life. She wasn’t just a writer, an actor, a speaker, a producer, a professor, a journalist and a lecturer.

She was all those things, yes, but she was more. She was a voice for the voiceless. She was an activist who activated those around her. She offered definition for those struggling to find themselves. She challenged the comfortable to move toward change.

In 1969, when she first published “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” she became the first black woman to truly break barriers in the literary world. The black woman became the central figure in her writings instead of just another cast member or an extra.

“The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.”

Angelou wrote about the human condition, in all its majesty and all its flaws. For more than 20 years, though she actively helped to lead the civil rights movement alongside both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, performed and produced music, art, dance, writings, television and stage dramas, she was only established in a small circle of the intellectual and collegiate worlds.

She actually wasn’t much of a household name until 1993, when she became the first poet to recite a piece at a presidential inauguration since Jack Frost in 1961. The day after President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, sales of copies of her paperback collections skyrocketed. That’s because she instantly spoke to people with the recitation of “On the Pulse of the Morning.” It crossed artificial lines drawn based on race and class and gender and station in life.

Her words would then begin to inspire many generations.

“Lift up your eyes upon

The day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.

Women, children, men,

Take it into the palms of your hands.”

Rest in peace, Maya Angelou. May we be inspired by your words for many, many generations to come.

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